The Mountain Goats, ‘Transcendantal Youth’ – Album Review
Mountain Goats records are more than collections of songs. They're tangles of short stories, as nerd-folk icon John Darnielle builds characters and moods with scatterings of words and chord progressions. He no longer records on a boombox -- here, the sound is rich with horns and bass -- but he remains as indie as it gets. On the 14th Mountain Goats album, ‘Transcendental Youth,’ he raises goosebumps with songs of yearning, fear, love and loss, adding a worthy entry to the project’s extensive catalog.
The theme for the record, as Darnielle describes, is recluses and outsiders, people living on the edges of society. This can take the form of teenage rebellion, as on opener ‘Amy / Spent Gladiator 1,’ with its series of contrarian affirmations and exhortations to “play with matches” and “do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive." Other times, it's much darker. On the addiction narrative ‘Lakeside View Apartment Suite,’ a character named Michael is “watching for the guy that's got the angel dust/crystal clear connection.” Whether manifested in a person or a place, darkness is a major theme here, lurking around the edges, veiling a threat unspoken and great, as on ‘Night Light,’ with its assurances to “plug a nightlight in / leave a porch light on.” These are simple, perhaps childlike defenses against the unknown.
There is madness here as well, in the homelessness of 'Counterfeit Florida Plates' -- which describes ciphers scribbled on bathroom walls and trash being dug through -- and the hard living of 'In Memory of Satan,' with its soft swells of brass and winds and the confessions of "wake up on the floor again / cell phone stuck to the side of my face." The neurosis described here settles in gently, as a person quietly, sadly falls into himself: "In old movies people scream, choking on their fist, when they saw shadows like these," then, "But no one screams because it's just me, locked up in myself, never gonna get free."
If the pain is in withdrawal, the promise is in youth, as album's title suggests. In the surprisingly catchy, surprisingly hopeful 'Cry For Judas,' Darnielle sings, "Some people crash two or three times and then learn from their mistakes." He also references youth via reminiscence. 'Harlem roulette,' set in New York, 1968, is a sketch of avenues, streets filled with billowing smoke, good dreams (since even "awful dreams are good dreams / if you're doing it right," right?) and the humble hope to "leave a mark on something, maybe."
If that's the yearning of not just the character, but also of the author, it's been well satisfied.